By Jon Schuppe
LOWER EAST SIDE — As "ambassador" to New York's massive annual coat drive, towering former Knicks center Dikembe Mutombo said he wants to raise awareness for all the oversized New Yorkers who can't afford warm clothing this winter.
“In New York there are many tall people,” the 7-foot 2-inch Mutombo said.
The line got laughs at Tuesday’s kickoff event for the 21st annual New York Cares coat drive at the Bowery Mission shelter. But its goal is serious: collecting 80,000 winter coats this month for the poor and homeless.
“We want to do whatever it will take to make everyone in New York healthy,” Mutombo said.
To mark the start of the drive, Mutombo, fellow NBA legend Bob Lanier, New York Police Department Commissioner Raymond Kelly and other officials helped Bowery Mission residents into newly donated coats.
One of them was Charles Walker, 50, who showed up at the Bowery Mission three weeks ago without a coat and trying to kick a drug habit he’d been feeding in the Bronx. Kelly sized Walker up and handed him a Navy blue waist-length coat that fit neatly over his shirt and sweater.
“Good selection,” Walker said, checking himself in a mirror. “Not too bulky. Nice.”
Kelly said later that he hoped “everyone out there will take the time out to do the right thing for their fellow New Yorkers.”
Gary Bagley, executive director of New York Cares, said his organization hoped to reverse last year’s 20-percent drop in donations. He blamed the economy, adding that New Yorkers should remember that “tens of thousands” of fellow residents are facing winter without a coat.
Many of them are parents who have to decide whether to buy their children food or put a coat on their backs, he said.
“They shouldn’t have to make that choice,” Bagley said.
New York Cares has arranged to put collection boxes at thousands of locations around the city, including every NYPD precinct house, Grand Central Terminal, Penn Station, the Port Authority Bus Terminal and private businesses. They are all marked with a poster of a shivering Statue of Liberty. A list of collection sites can be found at www.newyorkcares.org.
Since 1989, the drive’s first year, it has collected 1.3 million coats, Bagley said.
All the coats are taken from collection points to a warehouse where they’re sorted by size and distributed to organizations that serve the homeless and other low-income New Yorkers.
“We can’t afford to leave anyone out in the cold this year,” he said.